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Everything you never wanted to know about Dutch toilets

16th October 2009, Comments18 comments

Everything you never wanted to know about Dutch toilets
Expat blogger Tiffany Jarman Jansen exposes the weird world of Dutch toilets, from the pay-to-pee phenomenon to the good (or bad) old inspection shelf.

You're in a new country and just getting acclimated to the language, the culture and your new surroundings. Then, without warning, you realise that you've gotta go. Whether you're at home, in public or someone's guest, you can only cross your legs and squeeze for so long. 

It seems simple enough: go to the nearest toilet, do your thing and leave (after washing your hands, of course). However, if you've had the pleasure of living or spending time in the Netherlands, you'll know that nothing here comes easily!

A league of their own
The Dutch bathroom is the smallest room known to man. I'm talking the kind of size that would make an elf claustrophobic! There is barely, just barely, room enough to turn around and sit down. But before you awkwardly try to find a way to comfortably seat yourself, take a look at your surroundings; this will not take long. You will observe the four things unique to Dutch toilets ( and if you are planning to take the Samen Woonen test as part of your inburgering, you will need to know this):

  1. The lack of windows or any other form of ventilation;
  2. An air freshener in the toilet to compensate (You will more than likely find spray air freshener in addition to the one in the toilet bowl, just in case.);
  3. The omnipresent birthday calendar (Why not put birthday reminders in the room you undoubtedly spend the most time in? Just make sure you include everyone: the Dutch have been known to go to the bathroom for the sole purpose of making sure their natal day is included in your calendar);
  4. The inspection shelf (More on this later).

The Dutch birthday calendar

The (in)famous Dutch toilet birthday calendar

The Dutch believe that it is good to have options and that ideal even applies to ways to flush after using the loo. There's the chain, rope or string; the button on the top or side of the toilet; the push panel on the wall behind the toilet (one for flushing down No. 1 and one for flushing down No. 2) and the foot pedal. And those are just the most frequent. Even the tanks get fancy: some above the toilet, others behind and the occasional hidden tank.

Where's the potty?
Believe it or not, there is such a thing in the Netherlands as the Dutch Toilet Organisation (DTO). The DTO has two main goals: to provide more accessible public toilets in the Netherlands and to make clean toilets available to third world countries. For the sake of staying on topic, let's just focus here on number one. The DTO generously promises to fund inspections on existing public WCs and to provide a soapbox for policy makers, manufacturers, marketers, individuals and "other interested parties". 

These intentions are most definitely in the right place. With every person visiting the restroom an average of five times a day , according to DTO founder and Delft University of Technology associate professor Dr Johan F. M. Molenbroek,  the need for more public restrooms is very real.

As it stands, many of the few public restrooms in the Netherlands are of the infamous pay-to-pee variety. In my experience living in Utrecht, I have found very few restrooms for which this is the case. But in her August 2007 article ‘A Dutch Inconvenience’, nine-year expat and published author Amanda van Mulligan lists shopping centres, department stores, service stations and bars as culprits in charging for Nature's call. 

Typically, such places charge 25 euro cents for the privilege, which you are expected to pay to the toiletjuffvrouw before using the facilities. Sometimes, the fees are higher. (I've only seen up to a 50 cent charge, but have heard of places that actually expect you to pay a EUR 1 entry fee.)

The state of restrooms, however, will lead one to question where this money is going, since it is clearly not going towards cleanliness or keeping materials such as toilet paper, paper towels or soap in stock. Yet things are looking up, according to a survey done by Service Management: results showed a nine percent increase in the number of toilets that can be classified as clean between 2006 and 2007. For the cleanest potties, head for the hospital.

For the brave, there are other options that don't involve a fee. Public urinals are popular in Holland, especially during festivals, parades and fairs. The odd, hulking, four-sided booth-like plastic structures contain a small urinal—one for each of the four compartments—placed at just the right height. If you like your privacy, however, this is definitely not for you as there is nothing to shield you from passers-by.

Dutch public urinals

At this point you're probably thinking how wildly unfair it is that men have this option (should they be brave enough), while women do not. That is not quite true. Thanks to Dutch inventor Moon Zijp, ladies are now also able to make use of public urinals or wherever else they chose, for that matter. The device that makes it all possible is called P-Mate (Plastuit in Dutch) or, more appropriately, the She-Pee as they are referred to in the UK. This cardboard funnel-like contraption allows women to wee while standing up without revealing anything.

Now what's the shelf thing all about?

The most shocking thing for many an expat upon their first trip to a WC in Holland is what is commonly known as the ‘inspection shelf’. Thanks to Dutch toilet design, you are given the opportunity to examine your fecal matter before sending it on its way to the sewer. While it is an appalling idea, it is also a practical one. Many diseases and health issues can be detected by examining stool samples. Just as we determine if we are drinking enough water by looking at the colour of our urine, we can see other diet needs and surpluses by taking a peek at our excrement.

The system of having a flat surface in the toilet bowl comes from the Germans. In France toilets have more of a triangle shape, enabling feces to plop right to the bottom of the bowl and immediately out of sight. American toilets have the same idea, but contain a higher level of water so that the excrement floats to the top. In his lecture on toilets and ideology, philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who specialises in ideology and materialism, points out that each society seems to have their own system and each feels that their system is the best.

The flachspeuler (German for ‘flat-flusher’, i.e., the shelf design) may not be the most pleasant of toilet models, but it does have its advantages. Besides the opportunity to do a health check on your latest sample, these toilets save you from being splashed with toilet water with each deposit, and the design and flushing system save water. 


Standard versus flat-flusher toilet


Standard versus flat-flusher toilet design

The biggest problem with the shelf design? Once you're ready to say ‘Tot ziensI’ to your latest triumph, it’s not always so quick to leave. If you do succeed in getting everything off the shelf and down the hole in one flush, odds are high that traces will be left behind. To avoid having to clean up after yourself with a toilet brush or, gods forbid, your bare hands, try making a soft bedding of toilet paper for your stool to land on. The toilet paper will act as a raft and carry everything away without a trace.


Tiffany JansenTiffany Jarman Jansen writes children’s books for Medieval Maidens and contributes to publications such as 2BDutch, Expatica, Expat Exchange, and various other websites and newsletters. Originally from Maryland, she now lives in the Netherlands with her husband and their dog. Read more about Tiffany and her experiences as an expat in the Netherlands at Clogs and Tulips: An American in Holland.

Photo credit: AIGA symbol signs collection (toilet sign).

18 comments on this article Add a comment

  • 16th October 2009, 09:34:29 Mariana posted:
    Who wrote this review about Dutch toilets needs to go out more.
    Too long inside the very sad house where this person lives made him/her a ugly bitter person.
    I have once in my 5 years here in the Netherlands seem a toilet like that and it was in a old, small very poor house.
  • 16th October 2009, 16:01:05 Curt posted:
    The one positive thing I can say about Dutch toilets is that they rarely clog up. I go back to America for a couple weeks a few times a year and I need to use a plunger at least once per trip. Still better than brushing your poop off the table every time... I have one correction to the article (pg 3), in U.S. toilets, everything sinks and stays underwater which reduces the odor. If your poop floats, you've got way too much fat in your diet. The U.S. style commode still allows inspection through a thin layer of water, if you're really that interested in turning around and looking in the bowl to see how good you did.
  • 16th October 2009, 16:10:32 Me posted:
    And why no bidets? I hate living in NL just because of not having bidets on the houses!
  • 17th October 2009, 04:14:43 John Storer posted:
    This article is "spot on".
    Having just returned from 5 weeks staying with the Dutch relatives of my wife, the descriptions are exactly what I remember.
  • 17th October 2009, 12:54:26 Mariana posted:
    You can buy a bidet and place it in your toilet if you want.
    If you hate living in NL because you don't have bidets you can find a place here in NL called Schiphol and go back to your bidet land.
    I found very interesting people that come here and in place of being grateful because it is the land where you could get a job and a way of living, start to use to spare time they have talking about negative things.
    I have a very positive posture when I have to move to a new country, I try to learn the language and focus in the positive side of it. And if I hate it, I just find a way to get out of there, as I've done once.
  • 25th October 2009, 20:33:21 Maria posted:
    I don't know where you come from.. it doesn't matter ... but listen we here in the NL talk about everything , about the good en the bad, that's why NL is a great country fot its democratie...so also if you don't like it just find the way to get out of here...is the same for everyone right!
  • 30th October 2009, 11:25:40 Liz posted:
    I'm dutch and had a good laugh over the article. I recognize a lot of it and I can definitely recommend 'the raft'!:).
    I hate the lack in my country of free public toilets, or any public toilets at all, especially for women. The 'toiletjuffrouw' who charges 50 eurocents or more (I never see places cheaper than this) is, as far as I'm concerned, totally outdated. Let companies simply include it in their prices, that's my idea.
    I like the french toilets along the highways. I won't say the're always clean, but at least they are there at a regular interval, there's toilet paper most of the times ánd running water for washing your hands.
  • 25th November 2009, 11:23:28 JadEd posted:
    Love what is written! I have to say I was a little lost when I first arrived here as to how to flush some of the toliets here in NL! Just when I thought I got one toliet system down and could do my business like the locals I no sooner would find myself with yet another kind and where is the flush! The button on the floor really confused me! It took me a minute to of pushing and jiggling to finally see the button on the floor.
    The worst toliets I ever encountered were in France roadside because I never saw a hole in the ground toliet in my life. I was distraught when I saw the horrible hygine and had my husband find a place with a toliet above ground :) China has the same hole in the ground btw but they are cleaner than France. I had to get over my hole in the ground phobia in china and can handle it, but the dirty French roadside toliets filth still freaks me out!
  • 27th February 2010, 12:28:29 Steve posted:
    I thoroughly enjoyed your delightful article over breakfast thank you Tiffany! Don't worry about Maria and Mariana, they sound all bitter, twisted and humourless. Must be Dutch! You can't have a laugh about anything in Holland you know, you have to be stern and humourless here!! And you have to learn Dutch, that will straighten you out!
  • 17th April 2010, 17:55:58 Robin Pascoe posted:
    I never understood the birthday calendar until now! Thanks for writing a very funny piece.
  • 11th June 2010, 22:25:03 Dale Rowe posted:
    This was a very good article. I was stationed there in 1987 and remember it well. I did like the actual stalls because they were built like a closet with full walls and doors. Great privacy and you didn't share the stink. Ha In the United States we moved the tank off the wall years ago so that was a little different to see. The display shelf toilet brought back alot of laughs. My kids were in shock when they had to use them. My son couldn't pee the first time the first time a mother followed her son into the men's toilet to keep an eye on him. Great story and better memorys. Thanks
  • 29th December 2011, 12:35:24 kim posted:
    OMG I think you all have to come to Australia.... after reading all this I don't think I have anything to complain about ...At least I don't think I have and I do 10hour road trips from Queensland to Sydney quite a lot and we have so many roadside stops ,not once have I been stranded with no toilet paper,it may not be the best brand in the world but hey it's better than none,all have water to wash your hands.Public toilets are every where in our cities/towns,shopping malls.I have friends from the Netherlands who have done this same trip and come to think of it I never once heard them say anything about our toilets,I must ask them what they thought....Anyways thx for the info :) have a good day
  • 29th March 2012, 16:51:15 Darren Green posted:
    The toilet-roll raft idea is inspired.
  • 6th April 2012, 16:45:54 Daniel posted:
    Very amusing observation and despite what some readers have said, quite fair. What I find surprising however is the lack of hot water in so many Dutch toilets, which I find weird and inconvenient especially in winter! Even the modern building where I take my Dutch lessons doesn't have hot running water in the toilet block. I do like living in Amsterdam but this is a small but annoying aspect of life here.
  • 2nd February 2013, 12:55:09 Rupert posted:
    Most accurate! - I don't understand where Mariana and Maria have been living, I have been living in and/or visiting the Netherlands for nearly 20 years, and the inspection platform is ubiquitous. I can only remember seeing a couple of toilets which don't have it. I always thought it was a good idea, only somewhat marred by the experience of using one after a hard night out! (or too much coffee at work)
  • 29th November 2013, 12:18:23 mike posted:
    One 'missed' point with the flachspeuler - lack of drop distance for a manly motion. Not nice happily pushing it out to find it's hit a stop! Similarly, such manly motions don't have the space to tip over the edge to go down the hole! Probably far nicer to have a c**p outside - you can still examine it, needs no water to deal with it and you can find a spot with a decent drop distance - no splashing either!
  • 29th December 2013, 21:28:03 flat-flusher toilet design victim posted:
    Hey thanks, I was just amazed about this design trying to find out an explanation, why?, how ? ...

    I'm in Berlin right now an so far 2 of 4 toilets were flat. I keep counting to complete my statistics, just and advice , do it frequently do let pass one day with out throw it a big trunk could be fatal in a flat toiled
  • 20th January 2014, 21:14:33 filmine posted:
    Those air fresheners inside the bowls actually act as lime scale removers and flash antibacterial rinses :)

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